One of the peculiar developments of the Persian Gulf War has been the public discussion of just war principles, a way of determining the morality of war first suggested by St. Augustine in the 5th century.
It is a discussion normally confined to moral theology lectures, and the principles are usually applied in retrospect to wars long ended. But the 5 1/2 months leading up to the outbreak of the gulf war allowed moralists, theologians and ethicists an unprecedented opportunity to bring the just war discussion into the open, even to prime-time news conferences.
As one Roman Catholic theologian-pastor put it: "If there ever was a time when the bishops could have possibly made an evaluation of a war and drawn out the logical conclusion against participation in that war for Catholics, this was the war to do it."
What became apparent, however, was the difference between talking about just war in an academic setting and making a judgment about a real war. There also apparently is a big difference between applying just war principles to public policy decisions and applying those principles to individuals, such as soldiers, called to carry out the policy. The difference is akin to the sentiments of protesters who say they disagree with the war but support the troops.
Just war thinking has been an integral part of Catholic tradition, and the U.S. bishops, calling on that tradition, went as far as they ever have in opposing a war. Just hours before the war, the bishops sent a letter to President Bush, stating that the use of "offensive force in this situation would likely violate" two conditions of the just war teaching: the principles of proportionality and last resort. Proportionality holds that violence and destruction must be proportionate to the good achieved, and last resort mandates that war is a permissible option only after all other peaceful means have been exhausted.
Other religious leaders did not shrink from the opportunity to stand on just war principles to condemn the approaching war. The day before the United States led the first air attacks on Baghdad, mainline Protestant leaders called on the same principles -- proportionality and last resort -- in beseeching President Bush to delay military action.
In the end, all of the letters, statements and reasoned arguments had no effect on the administration's determination to wage war, nor did the religious leaders issue a prohibition against fighting in the war that they had declared was unjust.
Bush, in a speech Monday before the National Religious Broadcasters, mentioned the two criteria cited by religious leaders in declaring that the United States is involved in a just war.
Edwin E. Staudt III, general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, proclaimed Wednesday, "There is no such thing as a just war."
In comments issued in response to the president's assertions, Staudt said, "To accept the just war theory, you have to accept the principle of double effect: that is, that a lesser evil (killing in self-defense) may be permitted to counter a greater evil. Quakers and many other Christians do not accept this principle."
Despite the ideal opportunity for advocating against Catholic participation in a war, the bishops "just were not able to do this," said the Rev. Francis Meehan, who formerly taught moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and is now a pastor of a suburban parish.
"There is a reluctance to pursue to its logical conclusion that this is not a just war because the proof that it is not a just war is very difficult to come by," he said.
What is the point, then, of all the discussion about just war? Doesn't it confuse more than it clarifies?
The Rev. Kenneth Doyle, head of communications for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said he thinks the unusual amount of discussion of just war principles "elevated the discussion" for the nation as a whole. "I see a caution and sensitivity on the government's part in taking these criteria seriously," he said.
Meehan, who once served on the board of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace organization, agreed that the public discussion "has brought some clarity to the issue -- there is a certain level of barbarity that we are not allowed to practice in war."
On the other hand, he said, "I am left wondering whether the language of just war teaching is being co-opted so that people simply are beginning to know the public relations thing to say, and one has to worry about what's really happening in the real world of war . . . . Now even the president is cloaking himself in just war language, and one has to wonder if he is using the power of that language to intimidate people from dissenting."